by Jason Coffman
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The places that we live, and especially the places we grow up, tend to become something completely unique in our memories. Hence the importance of the title of the new film by Guy Maddin, My Winnipeg. Maddin’s last three films have been described by the director as “autobiographical” to various degrees, but they have featured bizarre and surreal plots including ghosts working in hair salons, dead fathers toiling in basements, parents extracting brain fluid from orphans who live in a lighthouse and so on. My Winnipeg may be the film most closely related to the facts of Maddin’s life growing up in Winnipeg, but it’s just as informed by his absurdist sensibilities than any of his previous films.
We first meet Guy Maddin (Darcy Fehr) sleepily, drunkenly riding a train around Winnipeg, trying to determine a way to escape. Feeling trapped by the city’s sleepy, snowy magnetism (attributed to supernatural powers of its forked rivers) as well as the pull of his mother’s presence, Guy feels he must find a way out. In between stories of Winnipeg’s past and histories of some of its landmarks, Maddin explains how he rents out his childhood home and hires actors to play his family along with his actual mother (actually played by Ann Savage) to act out important scenes from his childhood.
It’s difficult-to-impossible to sort the factual stories from Winnipeg’s history and some of the wild flights of Maddin’s imagination. While it’s a fair bet that Winnipeg has never had a daily series called Ledge Man about a guy who’s constantly threatening to jump off a ledge (starring Maddin’s mother, who always talks him back in), the story of “If Day” seems completely outlandish but is actually true. During World War II, a fake Nazi invasion of Winnipeg was staged, with hundreds of actors in full Nazi regalia, as part of a drive to sell war bonds. By all accounts, it worked.
Such odd stories would almost be enough to explain Maddin’s strange sensibilities, but perhaps more explanation is to be found in the re-enactments of his childhood. While his mother insists that Guy’s dad be included in them, they manage a compromise where they pretend Dad is buried in the living room and covered by an area rug. Again, it’s difficult to say what kind of relationship Maddin had/has with his parents, but as the film progresses we gain glimpses of explanation for some of his previous film’s autobiographical liberties—his mother did work at a hair salon (as seen in Cowards Bend the Knee), and his father apparently literally worked himself to death (like the father in Brand Upon the Brain!), disappearing along with Winnipeg’s professional hockey team.
My Winnipeg is a departure from Maddin’s last two films in many ways. It features narration by Maddin himself, and despite its often hilarious inventiveness, it is by far the saddest and possibly most accessible film he has made to date. Virtually everyone can relate to the anger of childhood haunts being torn down in the name of progress, and in the sadness of places still standing reduced to shells of what they were in our memories. Perhaps the most startling aspect of My Winnipeg is its almost unbearably sad final moments, when all jokes and artifice are stripped away and Maddin seemingly explains his obsession with imaginative autobiography, especially in regards to the places he lived. For anyone occasionally paralyzed by nostalgia for the places we loved when we were children, My Winnipeg will be painfully familiar despite being so intimately tied to Maddin’s personal experiences.
Jason Coffman is a freelance writer and film critic in Chicago.
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